Recalling a Canadian writer’s memory of distressed Wales

rhondda-mawr

If one travels for any length of time, one is bound to experience an unhappy adventure or two. What turns a miserable traveling experience into one that can be looked back on with, if not fondness, than at least a smile is the ability to take something away from the experience, be it a lesson, a memory or the ability to count one’s blessings.

George Woodcock (1912-1995) was a noted Canadian writer of political biography and history, an anarchist thinker and a literary critic. He also published several volumes of travel writing. As such, he experienced his share of “bad trips.” Among those that stood out was one he took in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression, while in his early 20s.

Woodcock was born in Canada but grew up in England. While he would later move back to Canada after World War II, he had an aunt who lived in the Glamorgan region in South Wales, which gave him the chance for free holidays. Apparently, he got what he paid for:

One day, when I was visiting her, I decided to take a bus and visit the Rhondda area, the heart of the South Wales mining district. Rhondda has a special place in the thoughts of those with Welsh connections, for one of the finest of all Welsh songs – stunning when the daios from the valley sing it at a rugby match – is called ‘Cwm Rhondda’  the hill of Rhondda. There are actually two valleys – Rhondda Mawr, Great Rhondda, or the main valley, and Rhondda Fach, the lesser valley of little Rhondda that branches off from it. I intended to go up Rhondda Mawr, cross over the intervening hills, and come down in Rhondda Fach, which I would descend and then make my way back to Bridgend, where I was staying.

It was the worst of times in Rhondda, though it probably looked just a little better than the best of times, since most of the mines were not working, and the smoke that would normally have given a dark, satanic aspect to the landscape was less evident that in more prosperous days. Still, it was dismal enough: a long ribbon of a main road with no real gap in the houses, so that it seemed like a single serpentine town, thickening out at each village centre like knots on a string. The houses were mostly built of gray stone long turned black from soot. In the middle distance reared up the gaunt towers and immense wheels of the pitheads and the truncated pyramids of the slag heaps. There were a few sickly trees among the houses, but the hills on each side were bare and greenish brown; spring had hardly begun.

It had the feeling of occupied territory. Many of the shops had gone out of business, the mines had slowed down years ago, and the General Strike of 1926 – disastrous for the workers – had delivered the coup de grace to the local economy. The people were shabby and resentful. Groups of ragged men squatted on their haunches, as miners do, and played pitch-and-toss with buttons; they had no halfpennies to venture. A man came strolling down the street, dejectedly whistling ‘The Red Flag’ in slow time as if it were a dirge.

Later, after being caught on the hills in a drenching downpour, Woodcock soddenly came across a slag heap where approximately 50 men and women were industriously picking over the ground.

I caught up with a man walking along the overgrown road from the mine into the village, whose damp slate roofs I could see glistening about half a mile away. He was pushing a rusty old bicycle that had no saddle and no tires, but it served to transport the dirty gunnysack he had tied onto the handle bars. He had been picking coat from the lagheap. ‘No bigger nor walnuts, man,’ he explained. The big coal had been taken years ago, so long ago it was since work had been seen in the village. I asked him how long he had been unemployed. ‘Ach y fi, man, it’s nine years I’ve been wasting and wasted.’ Yet he was friendly, perhaps because I looked such a wretched object that he saw me as an equal in misery.

(Top: View of Rhondda Valley today.)

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North Carolina woman still receives Civil War pension

irene triplett 1

More than 150 years after the end of the War Between the States, the US government continues to pay out pension money connected to the Civil War.

Irene Triplett, a Wilkesboro, NC, woman and the 86-year-old daughter of a Civil War veteran, collects $73.13 each month from her father’s military pension.

Triplett’s father was Mose Triplett, born in Wilkes County, NC, in 1846. He joined the Confederate army in May 1862 as a member of Company K of the 53rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment, at age 16. In 1863, he transferred to Company C of the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment.

Later that year, he fell ill with fever and was admitted to a Confederate hospital in Danville, Va. He escaped from the hospital on June 26, 1863, and deserted.

Triplett’s decision to turn his back on the Confederacy enabled him to miss the Battle of Gettysburg, which began less than a week after he slipped out of the Danville hospital, and likely saved his life.

The 26th North Carolina suffered unparalleled casualties at Gettysburg, losing 734 of the approximately 800 men it went into the battle with, according to the David H. McGee’s regimental history of the 26th North Carolina.

The losses suffered by the 26th North Carolina at Gettysburg were the highest of any regiment in a single battle during the 1861-65 conflict.

Mose Triplett's pension card.

Mose Triplett’s pension card.

Triplett is said to have made his way to Knoxville, Tenn., where he joined the 3rd NC Mounted Infantry, a Union regiment, in the summer of 1864. He began receiving a pension of his own in 1885, as an invalid.

Triplett’s first wife died without the pair having any children.

At age 78, Triplett married Lydia “Elida” Hall, who then 28. They had five children, three of whom did not survive infancy. But Irene, and her younger brother Everette, did. Mose Triplett was 83 when Irene was born and nearly 87 when her brother Everette came along.

Mose Triplett, who lived into his early 90s, eventually made it to Gettysburg, attending the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1938. But he died a few days after returning from the event.

With the Great Depression still lingering, times weren’t easy for a single mother with two children. In 1943, Elida and Irene went to live in public housing, while Everette ran away, according to the website theveteransite.com.

Sadly, Irene Triplett, who was born disabled, did not have a happy childhood, she told The Wall Street Journal in 2014.

“I didn’t care for neither one of them, to tell you the truth about it,” she said referring to her parents. She noted she was often abused. “I wanted to get away from both of them. I wanted to get me a house and crawl in it all by myself.”

Elida Triplett died in 1967. Everette Triplett died in 1996.

When US News & World Report recently reached out to the Department of Veterans Affairs for updated information on Triplett, a spokesman indicated the family did not wish to be contacted.

(Irene Triplett with historian Jerry Orton in 2010. Photo credit: The Daily Telegraph.)

Beware the remorseless vine that ate the South

kudzu1

Among that which marks the onset of spring in the South is the arrival of wisteria and kudzu. The first is an attractive flowering plant that is in bloom just a short time, while the latter is an unattractive weed that pretty much takes over everything and anything in its path.

Both are vines, but kudzu has become a symbol of the South, given its propensity to engulf stands of trees, signage, telephone poles, abandoned vehicles, homes, barns, loitering youth, etc.

Native to Asia, kudzu was introduced to the US as an ornamental bush at the Philadelphia Continental Exposition in 1876. During the Great Depression, it was “rebranded” as a means for farmers to stop soil erosion.

Close-up of kudzu in Beaufort, SC. Photo by CJ Dietrich, aka Cotton Boll Jr.

Close-up of kudzu in Beaufort, SC. Photo by CJ Dietrich, aka Cotton Boll Jr.

Southern farmers were given about $8 dollars an acre to sow topsoil with the vine and more than 1 million acres of kudzu were planted. As a result, millions of acres of land in the South and beyond are today covered with the invasive vine.

Kudzu isn’t all bad; it adds nitrogen to the soil and can be eaten by grazing animals such as sheep and goats. The vine also has medicinal uses.

However, it competes with native species and tends to take over land, blocking out competitors.

Today, not even 150 years after its introduction to the US, kudzu is as much a staple of the Southern US as swamps, slash pine and seersucker suits.

(Top: Kudzu evident in rural area, with small cabin in middle completely overgrown.)

Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

black sharecroppers sc

The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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Doctor’s role in reviving SC rice industry highlighted

carolina gold rice

Dr. Richard Schulze Sr. had predatory rather than culinary goals in mind when he planted Carolina Gold rice in the mid-1980s.

The Savannah eye surgeon was looking to attract ducks to his Turnbridge Plantation in Hardeeville, SC, about 30 miles northeast of Hilton Head, for hunting, according to the Savannah Morning News.

The birds didn’t much cotton to the long-grain rice, but chefs and rice connoisseurs shortly began to take notice.

Today, Carolina Gold rice is essentially the basis for the U.S. rice industry, no mean feat considering that virtually no one had grown rice in the South Carolina Lowcountry in the previous 60 years before Schulze’s efforts.

Initially, Schulze started by planting regular rice on his plantation. He then decided to switch to Carolina Gold, known as the Cadillac of rice for its taste and quality. The lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia was known for its high-quality Carolina Gold rice prior to 1900, particularly before the War Between the States.

“Well, I figured if we’re going to do rice, why not get the original stuff,” he told the Morning News.

Schulze requested Carolina Gold from the USA Rice Council, and was redirected to a rice research scientist with the US Department of Agriculture in Texas.

He was able to secure 14 pounds of Carolina Gold seed, which he planted in 1986.

Schulze faced the additional obstacle of hulling the seed. Sending rice out of state for milling and then having it sent back was impractical.

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Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

Speaking up for ‘Silent Cal’

calvin coolidge

Book reviews, when done well, can provide useful history lessons in and of themselves.

Take The Economist’s review of Coolidge, Amity Shlaes’ new biography of the underappreciated 30th US president.

“Mr. Coolidge’s hallmark was distrust of government. He saw it as an entity that uses ‘despotic exactions’ (taxes) that sap individual initiative and prosperity across the board …” according to publication.

“Coolidge learned at first towards the surging progressive movement, which supported state intervention and union involvement in the economy,” the review adds. “But his views shifted when he saw what those ideas meant in practice.”

The Economist is not noted for being a publication of a particularly libertarian bent by any means, but it recognizes Coolidge’s achievements during his five-and-a-half years as president, during which American debt fell by one-third, the tax rate by half and unemployment dropped precipitously. It’s unfortunate that more Americans haven’t taken note of Coolidge’s accomplishments.

While no means perfect, Coolidge offers an interesting counterbalance to FDR and his New Deal approach.

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